Indigenous woman wearing a blanket and smiling in front of the Devil's Tower natural monument in Wyoming

How the U.S. National Park Service Prioritized Nature Over Indigenous People

These "pristine wildernesses" came at a heavy cost

We’re dedicating our May features to the outdoors and adventure. In 2020, we saw more people get outside, eager for a breath of fresh air after challenging spring, taking up new activities and blazing new trails. Now, in 2021, read our features to learn more about 15 outdoor skills you should masterthe best state parks across the country, a new trend of hotels opening near formerly remote national parks, and one person’s quest to make outdoor experiences accessible for all.

It was desperation that led to the formation of Glacier National Park. For thousands of years, the Blackfeet Nation relied on the rugged landscape of northern Montana for spiritual and corporeal sustenance. Its millions of acres contained plentiful hunting grounds blooming with medicinal plants and sacred sites described in the tribe’s origin stories. Glacier National Park was, and still is, the “backbone” of the Blackfeet world and the tribe did not give up the spiritual center of their nation willingly.

They were preyed upon by the U.S. government, who initially sought the land for its purported gold and copper reserves. Decimated by disease, massacred by American soldiers, and struggling to feed themselves on what was left of a systematically destroyed bison population, in 1895 the Blackfeet chose survival over certain death. They leased the land for the modern-day equivalent of $1.5 million on the condition that the tribe would maintain hunting and gathering rights on the land. 

But by 1910, with the official establishment of Glacier National Park, both promises had been broken. The government refused to return the land (despite finding no gold or copper there) and hunting rights were revoked. More than a century on, the Blackfeet still cannot hunt within the boundaries of the park or gather ceremonial plants without a special permit. Other than a passing mention in the park’s literature and signage, and the occasional Blackfeet place name, the thousands of years the tribe spent protecting and living from the land have been virtually erased.

The story of the Blackfeet and Glacier National Park is not unique, especially in the American West. In Yellowstone, Death Valley, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the act of visiting the park, hiking its trails, and driving its scenic roads, has been thoroughly separated from its Indigenous past and present. You could spend days at Mount Rainier, Acadia, or the Grand Canyon and never know whose homeland was beneath your feet.

But every national park is intertwined with Indigenous histories, said Otis Halfmoon, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe whose storied career with the National Park Service took him from Big Hole National Battlefield where his own people faced U.S. troops in 1877 to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and beyond. 

“Yosemite, that there was stolen from the tribal people [and] that’s a tragic story of what took place. The Badlands in the Dakotas, again, that’s land that is sacred to the Lakota, Nakota, Dakota people,” explained Halfmoon. “Every national park has a [tribal] story.”

Glacier National Park

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

How the National Parks Were Formed

The formation of America’s first national parks was an extension of mid-19th century military operations. Throughout that period, the U.S. waged war on Native nations, massacring people and livestock, burning villages, and killing, en masse, the bison population that sustained tribes in the West. This genocidal brand of settler colonialism didn’t just open up the country to manifest destiny; it aimed to destroy Indigenous Americans altogether.

Only after Native people had been removed from their ancestral territories and locked away on reservation lands did the establishment of national parks begin, starting with the formation of Yellowstone in 1872. Soldiers were deployed to protect the boundaries of the first national parks from encroachers, namely local Indigenous people from whom the land had been stolen, and deadly skirmishes were not unusual. According to Ojibwe writer David Treuer in his article for The Atlantic, “viewed from the perspective of history, Yellowstone is a crime scene.”

But whereas some lands were taken from tribes explicitly for the formation of a national park, most—including Glacier, Yosemite, the Everglades, and Mesa Verde—were built out of the territories cleared of Native nations in the 18th and 19th centuries. At other sites, the NPS didn’t even bother to consider whether tribal people remained on the land or not. That’s how the Nez Perce National Historical Park came to be, Halfmoon said. 

A teenager at the time and the son of the chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Council, Halfmoon explains that one day the land was part of their reservation, the next day it wasn’t. “It was done right there even before talking to the tribe,” he explained. And then some parks were simply established around existing reservation lands. The Havasupai Nation, for example, is completely enclosed within Grand Canyon National Park’s boundaries.

Carving out tribal ancestral lands to establish places of “pristine” wilderness that prioritized nature over Indigenous people was an act of hubris by the National Park Service. “They were spiritual and cultural areas for those tribes where they participated in their annual ceremonies,” said Jeanette Wolfley, an attorney and a member of the Shoshone and Bannock Tribes, who were removed from Yellowstone beginning in 1868. “Also, they had the abundance of medicines and other kinds of plants that they used throughout their daily lives, as well as an abundance of natural resources. When we were forbidden to go back into those areas, it was very devastating.”

But not every Native nation was a victim of early NPS policy. In the establishment of later parks, some Indigenous communities fought the park service and won. When the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was proposed to be built on Ojibwe land in the 1960s, the protest from the tribe was so intense that the federal government backed down. In 1970, though the park they established was on ancestral Ojibwe territory, it did not include land guaranteed to the tribe by treaties they signed with the U.S. in 1837, 1842, and 1854. 

It’s in part for this reason that the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe, in whose “backyard” the Apostle Islands are located, doesn’t have the combative relationship with the NPS found in some other regions. “Overall, the NPS has a great impact on our community and the economy of this area,” said Nathan Gordon, vice-chairman of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe. In 2019, Apostle Islands brought 241,000 visitors and $38.7 million to the region.

“Even if the park service weren’t here, this area would still exist, and the Red Cliff community would still be looking at it as opportunities for the next generation,” continued Chase Meierotto, the Red Cliff Band’s Treaty National Resources Division Administrator. “From a tribal standpoint, we’re always looking towards the future.”

Navajo brothers galloping on horses in Arizona
THEPALMER / Getty Images

An Ever-Evolving Relationship

Over the last generation, the NPS has slowly begun to integrate Indigenous stories into the national park narrative and return to the tribes some of the rights that were stolen. When Otis Halfmoon began working with the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, his role was as a tribal liaison to the Native nations along the route. 

Lewis and Clark’s journals included almost nothing of the Indigenous experience, and Halfmoon’s job was to reach out to tribes so they could tell their own stories. Initially, many were reluctant to participate. “The Lakota, they said ‘look what they said about us, who would be involved with that?’ The Blackfeet were not happy with it because some of their members were killed on the return trip [of Lewis and Clark],” he recalled. “My comeback was, if you don’t tell your story, these white people will tell the story for us.”

What Halfmoon started, the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) continues through a partnership with the National Park Service. “Native Americans are often left out of the historical narrative, so we’re thrilled that NPS is looking to deliver a comprehensive inventory of tribal activities and cultural tourism experiences for visitors interested in traveling all or parts of the famed route,” said AIANTA CEO Sherry Rupert on the organization’s website. They have a similar partnership to chronicle tribal stories, create educational webinars, and write a guidebook on the Anza National Historic Trail, which stretches from Nogales, Arizona, to San Francisco, California.

In some parks, there have been concessions to Indigenous communities beyond just including tribal histories. Increasingly, the NPS recognizes the unique rights of tribal people to worship at sacred sites, gather plants, and fish on national parklands. It’s a good start, but it’s by no means ideal, explains Wolfley. Not only does the permitting process fail to take into account the Indigenous worldview, but at times, it’s not possible for Indigenous people to fill out a permit application months in advance of a ceremony or another sacred activity.

Even more significant concessions are not unheard of, but they are few and far between. At Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the tribe now manages the park’s water, forest, mineral and subsurface resources, and grazing rights. At Badlands National Park, the Oglala Sioux manage the southern unit’s visitors center. And in California’s Death Valley National Park, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribes were not just able to secure land for a reservation within the park’s boundaries, but they now also co-manage some of its sites. 

These are positive developments in the long, often challenging, relationship between Native Americans and the National Park Service, but they are a beginning, not an ending. Indigenous people deserve more than just the right to gather plants. Indigenous people are owed back the land that was stolen, and as Treuer wrote in The Atlantic, “for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks.” 

Wolfley agrees that repatriating national parks to tribal people would be an act of respect and healing. “I think it would be a real positive. I think it would be like a return, something that was taken away from you, and you’re able to go back there again. It would be so joyful,” she said.

Elderly Navajo Woman Weaving a Traditional Blanket or Rug on a Loom in the Arizona Desert at Dusk
grandriver / Getty Images

Experiencing America’s National Parks the Right Way

National parks are not pristine islands. They were carved from this country’s cultural, political, and military history. One does not exist without the other.

Most of us visit national parks for their beauty and ecological splendor. We’re more likely to go inside the visitor’s center for the gift shop than to consume the (often inadequate) stories they share—and that’s a problem. A land without history is a land at risk of becoming a tool of propaganda. In some ways, our national parks—frequently referred to as “America’s best idea”—already are.

For visitors, seeking out the human histories of the Indigenous homelands on which our national parks were built should be a priority, not an afterthought. It’s an act of compassion and respect that acknowledges both the rich stories and traditions of those who came before and the brutality and injustice they endured. It’s a more complete way of seeing the landscape, a more complete way of seeing ourselves as Americans.

Go a step further by trading your visit to a U.S. national park for a tribal park or a tribal national park. Of the latter, so far, there is just one, the Frog Bay Tribal National Park on Red Cliff Band territory on the shores of Lake Superior but two other tribes, the Ioway and the Blackfeet, are working on tribal national parks of their own. Run entirely by the tribes, these sites have the same kind of recreation opportunities as their federal predecessors but are managed and protected completely by the tribes in whose homeland they are found. There are more ways to acknowledge and respect the Indigenous identity of national parks, too, which you can read about here.

Main photo by Amanda Royce Josanaraae Cheromiah.